Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve

Reserve Manager Tom Cunningham reflects on events in and around Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve. His regular newsletter will be winging its way over the wires soon, but here’s a taster of what Tom has to say.

Summer 2017 brings our 37th Tentsmuir Newsletter, now in its 18th year.  It is hard to believe we have produced so many since July 1999. This edition will be my second last one.


A big focus is on the amazing management work we have been doing since the turn of the year.  We have never stopped and it’s down to the hard work of the many dedicated volunteers, great work by contractors, and our own Reserve Staff.

Weather wise, this year has seen some long dry and sunny weeks and then endured an awful lot of rain!  The benefits of the rain, heat and sunshine throughout the Reserve sites and countryside is evident when you see the landscape greening up spectacularly.

As yet, the kingfishers haven’t been as showy when compared to last season’s amazing sightings. However, we have enjoyed several sightings of the sea eagles; as recently as last week, Alex & Ruari were lucky enough to have a good view of one around Morton Lochs – but neither had a camera or mobile phone handy!

2017 is going to be an especially busy year for Tentsmuir NNR and for me, the realisation of a dream project for Tentsmuir Point and the planning and preparation work for the annual Family Day event are all going on apace.

2017 Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology by Kirsty Fisher

‘Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve (NNR) is undeniably a fantastic place for natural heritage, encompassing wetland, woodland and coastal habitats, which support a diverse range of plants and animals. Yet did you know just how significant this place has been for the history of people in Scotland?

My first experience of Tentsmuir NNR involved Morton Lochs, waders and a large pile of reeds which we were going to plant, but on this occasion, I was back on dry land to learn about the rich history of this diverse NNR.

Tentsmuir’s human history dates back to around 10,000 years ago with the arrival of Mesolithic man, who inhabited an island which is now part of fields at Morton Farm, just under 4km inland from the present-day shoreline. It is here that many archaeological artefacts have been found, including flints, grinding stones and cutting tools.

Throughout the years since then, Tentsmuir has played an important role in the lives of many people. Dr John Berry, an eminent Scottish naturalist and former director of the Nature Conservancy Council in Scotland, labelled Tentsmuir ‘Paradise’ for the special range of plants and animals found here, and its astounding natural beauty.

Tentsmuir’s name is thought to have been derived from ‘Tents on the moor,’ though a number of arguments about its origin have been put forth, ranging from ‘Tents lived in by early shepherds,’ to the Scottish name, ‘Densman’, in reference to Danes thought to have been shipwrecked off the coast.  Either way, the idea of ‘Tents on the moor‘ became ever more pertinent when World War 2 came knocking at Scotland’s door.

Hidden among the trees at the Forestry Commission-managed Tentsmuir Forest are the remains of WW2 buildings set among the quiet rustle of trees and the loud calling of birds. Yet during the war, these areas would have contained a bustling army camp. While there are many more interesting historical artefacts to be seen at the NNR, such as the March Stone delineating the fishing rights in 1794 and the Ice House dating from 1888, once used to keep the fish fresh, I will leave some of these relics to be discovered on your next visit to Paradise NNR.

Polish image

Polish Eagle emblem on the well

To end my day, much like Tentsmuir’s recurring ‘tents on the moor’ theme, I ended up back in waders at Morton Lochs helping with fencing to stop the grazing cattle from entering the loch. Along with all the fascinating stories I learned about Tentsmuir’s history, an important additional lesson from my trip to Tentsmuir NNR was never to assume, based on eyesight alone, that the water is not as deep as your waders…’

Thank you very much to Tom and Ruari for all your help and wonderful stories about the fascinating history of Paradise NNR.



The Limousin cattle will be returning to graze throughout the summer months and our thanks go to farmer Robert Lamont for providing the cattle. McIntosh & Robertson, with digger driver Bill Martin, cleaned out the Cleek burn on the north part during the spring months. The sea fences were repaired by Bob Ritchie and Mikey Smith and the south sea fence especially had taken quite a battering and this was repaired during the annual service.

Dave Mackie and his team will shortly start the targeted herbicide treatment of our invasive flora species. We also hope to trial a special Soft Track machine that will cut the rosebay willowherb before it seeds. This will be year 1 in this new management of the plant which has spread thought the dune system and in places is dominant. We are hoping that cutting will weaken the plant and reduce its vigorous growth drastically.



Educational visits are slowly picking up this term with High School visit numbers on the up.  Shonagh Barbour of Bell Baxter High School had 20 third year pupils on the Reserve for four days studying sand dune succession and carrying out the work towards their John Muir Award ‘Giving Something Back to the Environment.’

SEA EAGLES The sea eagles have been observed on occasions as they fly around Fife, and recently been seen around Morton Lochs.  Keep your eye on the local newspapers for a press release from the RSPB.

BUTTERFLIES AND MOTHS I am delighted to announce that SNH will publish long-term volunteer Gillian Fyfe’s research report “A Report on Butterfly Abundance and Flight Periods at Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve, Fife from 1978 to 2015”.  We are obtaining maps and images to complement this wonderful piece of work by Gillian.


Green Hairstreak by Daphne MacFarlane Smith.

The butterflies seem to have had a better start this year with monitoring figures up on previous years.  Daphne MacFarlane Smith was thrilled to see the Green Hairstreak.

Student Placement Ruari Dunsmuir has started carrying out moth trapping and his ID skills are improving with each survey.  Ruari has kindly provided an article, which will include his mothing surveys.

MORTON LOCHS MANAGEMENT Large scale management projects continued at Morton Lochs with Bill Martin the digger driver for McIntosh & Robertson very skilfully creating two large areas within the Lead Burn inflow to the north loch to create a reed bed filtration system.  Bill was able to excavate reeds from the north loch margins and transport them to the new reed beds for us.  Bill also excavated the old railway line ditches along the south loch footpath.

We took advantage of the water levels which had been deliberately lowered to allow excavation work to go ahead, and a group of colleagues and volunteers helped us plant up reeds in the prepared beds.


Volunteers & colleagues planting reeds

DIFFUSE POLLUTION AT MORTON LOCHS The reed bed system will be a very important part of reducing the nutrients reaching the north loch.  Research by Dr Sascha Hooker and the student team from the University of St. Andrews continues into the water quality of the Lead Burn and in the North Loch.  We await the results at some point during the year.



VIEW FROM THE SQUIRREL HIDE This hide continues to be very popular and every day visitors can be seen watching the red squirrels on the feeders and trees.  You can see some fancy cameras with huge lenses poking out of the hide viewing windows, hoping to catch them in action!  In addition to the squirrels, you can observe woodpeckers, coal tits, blue tits, long-tailed tits, wrens, chaffinches and, if you are really lucky, spot badgers snuffling around at the base of the trees picking at the dropped nuts.

DRAGONFLIES AND DAMSELFLIES Already during the sunny May days there have been damselflies observed especially around the ponds and on the footpaths.  Damselfly species observed so far include the Large Red, Blue tailed and Common Blue damselflies.

BIRDS AND OTHER WILDLIFE The hides have been very busy with visitors and photographers hoping to see the kingfishers and they have flocked to see them, which is wonderful.  Some visitors have been so eager to capture that special shot and have been walking in front of the hide and disturbing them.

Please be aware the Kingfishers are a protected Schedule 1 bird, and as a gentle reminder, we have put up signs reminding visitors that it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb at, on or near an active nest.

The squirrel feeders have been very busy, and it is wonderful to watch their antics and see the smaller birds, swifts, swallows, house martins, great spotted woodpeckers, long-tailed tits, blue tits, coal tits, great tits, wrens, chaffinches, jays, robins diving in and around getting a free feed.

On the lochs there are other notable sightings including otters, occasionally sea eagles, mute swans, gadwall, water rail, water voles, grey wagtails, little grebe, etc.

FAMILY DAY OUTThursday, 6th July 2016 – “Tentsmuir’s, TimeLine Treasures”.  Starts at 1pm.   The eighteenth FREE annual NNR event will be held on Thursday, 6th July and it should be another fantastic, exciting day out and will tie in with the Year of History, Heritage & Archaeology, and will be dedicated to the rich history and the flora and fauna on the Reserve and having plenty of fun.

The new-style shorter activity sessions will continue, so please squeeze in as many of the activities as you like, and learn all about the Reserve’s plants and animals and be creative AND see if you find the buried treasure? This new activity is linked with the history of the Reserve, where a Polish Army Officer invented the mine detector, which is effectively a metal detector.

You may have a moment or two to wait after one activity ends and the next one begins, but come and enjoy, learn and try several different ones.  Each activity will last 20 to 30 minutes.  Activity leaders, colleagues and the volunteers will help you all the way.

After last year’s hugely successful and fun time main attraction with Cat Frankitti I asked if she would like to come back this year.  Cat was so enthusiastic and you will all have so much fun and learn so much, I cannot wait!!  The attraction is called “Pirates of Paradise” Cat, her husband John and assistant Pete will provide food tasting, hunter-gathering and lots of pirate shenanigans – you’d better find out for yourselves on the day!

There will be small prizes for the best Pirate costume for a young visitor and parent!  Ship Ahoy!!  Oooo Aaaaarrrrrr Me Hearties!

The telescopes and binoculars will be on the foreshore and there are several activities.  We have two on which my colleagues are keeping me guessing, but so far we have:-

  • Folding Craft birds & animals – with David Mitchell, Caroline & Myra
  • Food with Fire – with Cat, Pete & John
  • Tentsmuir’s Top Ten Bug Hunt – with Gillian & Ailsa
  • Picture It – with Kathryn Green & Allison
  • Buried Treasure – Alex & Ruari and Kirsty
  • Sea Eagles Scavenger Hunt – with the RSPB Lauren Shannon & Richard
  • Telescopes on the Foreshore – with Hannah & Andy

Book early to avoid disappointment.  With the exception of the £2 charge for the car park, it’s all free! (It’s now £2 at the barrier – please have change ready.) Please be at the car park for 12:30 ready to board the coaches which will bring you onto the Reserve.

There are normally 120 places available and the event books up fairly quickly.  I also keep a reserve list, as there is usually a visitor or two who may have to cancel suddenly.  If you are unable to attend after booking, please contact me as soon as possible to let me know, so I can call and let someone else take up your place.  Please don’t let me or other visitors down.  Remember a responsible adult must accompany all children.

To book, please phone my office telephone and if I am not in, please leave a short message on the answering machine with your name and telephone number and I will contact you to confirm the booking.  If I do NOT contact you, you are not on my list!


This year we have thoroughly enjoyed having Ruari work alongside us; he is hard working and enthusiastic, a fast learner and an all-round brilliant colleague. Ruari wrote the following article about some of the management tasks & activities and projects in which he is involved.

‘Tentsmuir NNR consists of three sites: Tentsmuir Point, Tayport Heath and Morton Lochs. This diverse set of habitats and associated species make it a wonderfully varied and interesting Reserve. My time is spent performing a number of management tasks to improve the quality of the Reserve for both wildlife and people. Core tasks consist of practical conservation management, leading volunteer groups, visitor management, and species monitoring, and assisting with educational events. Being involved in such activities is highly rewarding, engaging, and for me highlights the complexity of the work and the number of tasks required to manage and maintain the Reserve.

As the year moves forward and the weather improves, the Reserve feels like it is wakening up after a long winter and with it come more opportunities to get out and do different types of species monitoring. This can include dragonflies, damselflies, squirrels, butterflies, moths, birds, and plants.

Surveying and monitoring wildlife at Tentsmuir is important to help us manage the Reserve in the best possible way for conservation. This will safeguard species and their habitats for future generations. Therefore, we need to have up-to-date information on the condition of the habitats, the species present on-site, and population trends of important plants and animals.

White Ermine

White Ermine

Many people are intimidated by the challenge of counting wildlife or worried about incorrect identification. Personally, I love the challenge and the opportunity to see as much wildlife as possible. Currently my passion is moths.

I find it really exciting walking up to the trap in the morning wondering what is going to be in it (if anything). I did not start moth recording until a few months into my placement at Tentsmuir so at the moment I am still finding species I have not seen before.  Additionally, moths really make you work and test your identification skills. Yes, there are many species which are brightly coloured or have distinctive, clear, helpful markings. But then there are the ‘small brown jobbies,’ as my college lecturer used to say, about any small brown seemingly indistinct species. These can be particularly difficult to correctly identify and more often than not, require a photograph and a trawl through a book or the internet. And even then, just to make it a bit more challenging, some species can look incredibly similar and wing patterns can fade over time. Correctly identifying these is extremely rewarding.

What got me into moths? I feel they are generally under-recorded and overlooked by many people despite having a great aesthetic appeal. They are beautiful and have the enigmatic appeal of all nocturnal animals while also having some fantastic common names.  Small Phoenix, True Lover’s Knot, Smoky Wainscot, and Chimney Sweep, to name but a few.  Moths also play a vital role in telling us about the health of our environment. They are widespread and sensitive to changes, making them particularly useful as indicator species. Monitoring their numbers and ranges can give us vital clues to changes in our own environment, such as the effects of new farming practices, pesticides, air pollution and climate change. In the end, though, I just really enjoy seeing these wonderful animals and as my work progresses at Tentsmuir I want to continue to learn as much as possible and gain more experience of Reserve work, in an effort to make a positive contribution both for wildlife and people.


Message from Tom Cunningham :  I will soon retire this year after 20 years working on “Paradise NNR”, and I have enjoyed every minute of it.  I have so many people to thank for supporting me and working for us on the Reserve over the years.  (I was not happy relying on my memory, so on investigating I found that I had started as the Assistant Reserve Manager in June 1997.)

From the fantastic teachers at the nurseries, primary and high schools who flocked along to the Reserve as we encouraged them to study in the Outdoor Classroom using the wonderful Tentsmuir NNR Education Pack: Life in the Sands.  From Moscow and La Vallée de la Loire in France and all over the UK to the schools on our doorstep, the schools loved studying here. Thank you all.

To the Colleges, especially Elmwood College and Stuart MacDonald in particular; to the great range of UK Universities, who used the Reserve to study, teach and carry out a massive amount of Research on this amazing National Nature Reserve. Thank you all.

Some very special thanks go to the following truly amazing people who supported me and the Reserve.

Professor Rob Duck. Professor Bob Crawford. Dr Jim Steward (Deceased and sorely missed) who set the bar at an incredible height, and was the first Poet in Residence in 2013.    Derek Robertson – the first Artist in Residence during 2013.  Bernie McConnell, Ailsa Hall, Professor Sir David Read, Stuart MacDonald, Jim Allan, Sheila Brinkley, Jean Stewart,      Donald Stewart, Tam Ross, Andrew Ford, Pete Cunningham, Professor John Rowan, Keith Skene, and all the special people who work in the various Geosciences departments; Gerald Lincoln, David Bryant, Duncan Davidson, Pat Dugard, Marek Malecki.  Thank you.

Other brilliant volunteers include: my first volunteer Maxine Reekie and her boyfriend Kevin Little. Then there is a whole host of Elmwood College Conservation Management students including the lovely Eve Schulte, Ian Jamieson, Alasdair McLeod, Craig Baxter, Mandy Dougal, Andy Smart, Robert Bell, Lee Robertson, Brice Coe, Lynda Oxley, Steve Fordsham, David Brattesani, Ali Campbell and Willie Doig. Thank you.

I also want to thank some more great volunteers including Elisa O’Hare, Karen Caddell Walker, Ana Viera, Julia Mifflin, Tom Stevenson, Anne Frost, Cath & Ron Warrender, Emma, Lesley, Jim McCann, Craig Ferries, Mary Bensted, Kirsten Campbell, Kirsten Brewster, Nicola Williamson, Corryn Christie and the late Jim Rougvie.  There are a good many more volunteers and groups who came along for a day or two and supported us, carrying out a massive amount of work.  I Thank you.

Lastly, but by no means least, a group of fabulous people who have worked tirelessly (and a good number put up with me for many years) carrying out vital monitoring work: Daphne MacFarlane Smith, Gillian Fyfe, Ailsa Malcom, Anne-Marie Smout, Paul & Ruth Blackburn, David Mitchell, Gerry Callaghan, Bill Alexander, Tam Ross, Alan Foulds – a massive thanks to you all.

Reserve Staff: I started as Assistant Reserve Manager to the great Dave Bonnet (RIP) and Gordon Wardrope, Alex Easson, Blair Johnston and Ruari Dunsmuir.  Thank you.

Forestry Colleagues – Alex again (job share FCS & SNH), Graham, John, Robin and in the past, Bid.  Alex and I have worked together for over 16 years and we have achieved a whole host of successes on the Reserve; it has been great.  Thank you.

A host of lovely people who send me wildlife data and images – Bob Willis, Steve Hubbard, Chris Reekie, John Cumming, Daniele Muir, Steve Buckland, John Nadin, Ian Ford, Jacqui Herrington and Andrew Hodgson.  Thank you.

A whole host of fantastic and hardworking contractors who carried out some amazing work on the Reserve sites include Dave Mackie with Moray Stewart, Jim Allan, McIntosh & Robertson especially digger driver Bill Martin, Jim & Valerie Downie; all have contributed hugely to the successful contracts.

The fantastic Cat & John Franchetti who have had many years of putting up marquees, flags, tables, etc, and then brought their magical activities and fun to the last three Family Day Events. Special people who also made the activities so much fun are Kathryn Green, Gillian Fyfe and Maggie Gay.  Thank you.

A very special mention to my darling wife Pete Cunningham who has had to put up with me, bringing work home; she is my editor, spellchecker and an extraordinaire wordsmith!  Thank you.

Oh my goodness “The Big One” I have much to thank – Caroline Gallacher, my boss for 20 years – what a team!  Thank you very much.

Thank you also to my other fantastic Cupar Office colleagues. Rosemary, Allison. Myra, Dave, Gavin, Elspeth, Iain, Kath, Sarah, Keith and in the past Elena, Eleanor, Julie, Catherine, Isobel and a whole host of fantastic SNH colleagues throughout the organisation especially David Rodger, Heather Kinnin and Vicky Mowat who helped me throughout and put Tentsmuir NNR on the map and also the NNR team Susan, David & Stewart.  Thank you

And to all the amazing, talented group of fantastic NNR Reserve Managers & Reserve staff … what a team we are! SNH should be proud of us and our Special Places.

Apologies if I missed anyone out, it was not deliberate, it’s just the grey cells aren’t as good as they were.

Way hey, I will miss you all.


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